St. Matthew (6:33) tells us that Jesus once said:
Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.
In today’s Gospel reading we are told of two brothers apparently following that advice; James and John, members of Jesus’ most intimate circle of disciples, ask for a place, a really special place, in the Kingdom:
They said to Jesus, "Grant in Your glory that we may sit, one at Your right hand and the other at Your left."
However, in their eagerness to set about seeking the kingdom of God, as Jesus said, they failed to take sufficiently into consideration the fact that He also taught that the search for the kingdom of God should go hand in hand with a search for the righteousness of God:
Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.
James and John wanted Jesus to grant them prestigious seats in the glory of God’s Kingdom on the basis of favouritism or special privilege; Jesus said that they were not His to give in such a way, they could only be bestowed on the basis of the righteous judgement of the all-holy God.
The brothers had asked for something good in the wrong way: asking for places in the Kingdom of the heavenly Father, without manifesting a corresponding desire to share in His righteousness. This is clearly shown in their glib response to the awesome question Jesus subsequently put to them:
Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?
They immediately answered that they could indeed drink His cup and be baptized with His baptism; and they said this on the basis of their own self-confident appreciation of the love they felt for Jesus. They were doing just what Peter would do later on:
Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death; even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You! Even if all are made to stumble, yet I will not be." (Luke 22:33; Matt. 26:35; Mark 14:29)
Then, however, Peter would be speaking after hearing that Jesus was being threatened with death: it was a spontaneous and heartfelt protestation of immediate concern and love. It was, indeed, also an ill-considered promise of personal fidelity far beyond him, but Peter could be excused somewhat in that over-statement and over-appreciation of his own powers because he was being impelled and compelled by his anxiety for Jesus under threat of violent death. James and John, however, had no such laudable motivation for their considered, over-zealous, and over-confident words, unduly, though not exclusively, motivated by the desire to be greatest, which, Mark tells us, had already shown itself previously:
Jesus asked the disciples, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest. (Mark 9:33-35)
Despite Jesus’ explicit teaching – if anyone wishes to be first of all he shall be last of all and servant of all -- James and John still hankered after the position of the ‘greatest’. As yet, they knew little about seeking the righteousness of the Father, and Jesus would have to teach them about it to the very end, as we find at the Last Supper in His sacerdotal prayer before the whole gathering:
Righteous Father, the world does not know You, but I know You; and these k+
now that You sent Me. I made known to them Your name, and I will make it known. (John 17:25-26)
Jesus consistently attributed nothing to Himself, openly saying:
No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:44)
All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and I will not reject anyone who comes to Me, because I came down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of the One who sent Me. (John 6:37-38)
Clearly, Jesus did not consider that, whether by His preaching, His miracles, or by His Personality, He would effectively and decisively draw disciples to Himself; no, only those sent by the Father would come to Him until such time as He Himself should be lifted up (John 12:32):
When I am lifted up from the earth I will draw everyone to myself.
A like attitude, concern, is manifest in Jesus’ death. We were told in the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the Suffering Servant, the future Messiah … concerning Jesus:
The LORD was pleased to crush Him in infirmity.
Though Son and Saviour, Jesus did not take upon Himself weakness, suffering, and grief; it was the path traced out for Him by His Father. He was indeed prepared for it but He did not seek it out … all He wanted was to do His Father’s will: He would lovingly accept it in fulfilment of His Father’s plans, for His Father’s glory, and as the supreme human expression of His love for and trust in His Father.
And so the prophet went on:
If (in loving response to His Father) He gives His life as an offering for sin, He shall see His descendants in a long life.
All would then happen, the prophet tells us, in such a way that:
The will of the LORD shall be accomplished through Him.
That was His example of seeking the righteousness of the Father; an example that needed to be closely observed, secretly pondered, and ultimately imitated, by those impetuous brothers James and John, as indeed by all the disciples.
However, Jesus could only guide to such sublime perfection disciples who were eager to learn: and that is why He was secretly pleased with the ardent desire of Peter, James, and John, and indeed of all His closest disciples, to be great in the Kingdom of God. Initially, through their ignorance, such desires appeared to be little better than merely human ambition seeking superiority and precedence; Jesus, however, knew that deep down they were the expression – temporarily tarnished indeed -- of the disciples overwhelming desire to share with Him, to be united, as closely as possible, with Him, on earth as in heaven; and such desires could -- like diamonds -- be skilfully cut and purified before finally being polished to perfection by the divine artificer.
Today, however, few want to be great in the kingdom of God; so very few have faith in, and love for, Jesus deep enough to make them long, desire, and ultimately will, to cling to Him in their passing experience of earthly sufferings so as to share with Him in His eternal, heavenly, glory. Such a desire is fundamental, and the lack of it cannot be compensated for easily or quickly, just as an athlete cannot train without first having a good bone and healthy muscular structure to begin working with.
At times this apparent lack of love for, commitment to, Jesus results from a relatively innocent and understandable fear of standing out from friends for fear of losing their companionship: this can happen easily enough with young people today. Again, there are others ... good, Christian and Catholic people … who tend, in their spiritual naivety and ill-conceived humility, to think along lines such as: “Who am I to think that I can become anything special?” They are right to a certain degree, of course; but they are, more seriously, wrong; since God is the supreme potter with the unique ability and exclusive right to shape His chosen clay as He wills:
According to the eternal purpose that He accomplished in Christ Jesus Our Lord. (Ephesians 3:11)
And there are yet others who, amazingly, seem to think that to aspire higher in their spiritual life would somehow be pretentious disloyalty to themselves: “This is my character, if I tried to be otherwise it would not be the real me!”
Whereas the young persons’ fear of standing out, alone, is understandable, bearing in mind the general weakness of our human nature and their own personal immaturity and lack of experience; with the other two examples, however, we find the Devil more insidiously at work, doing what he usually tries to do: pass himself -- his suggestions and his impulses -- off as virtuous, even holy.
People of God, all of us, like James and John, have faith in Jesus, and all of us, on the basis of that faith, should want, indeed aspire, to be true disciples of Jesus, longing to be as close to Him as possible here on earth and for all eternity, because our supreme destiny is that we be found, in Him, to be true children of our Father in heaven. A desire for such greatness is no disloyalty to our fellows, neither is it a forgetting of our true situation, or a lying representation of our real self; rather, it is the only true recognition of, and response to, the fact that we are created in the image and likeness of God, and that we have been redeemed by the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Our Lord for the glory of His Father and the fulfilment of our God-given being. As you heard in the second reading:
Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.
Yes, let us, out of love for Jesus and our heavenly Father, strive to follow where He has gone before us. Do not let the Devil -- with weasel words of mock humility or serpentine suggestions of twisted fidelity -- try to persuade you to idly and comfortably go through life like everybody else; or, under the devilish pretext of remaining true to yourself, lead you to neglect the God-given opportunity to discover and realise your only true self, originally planned for God’s own presence, and created in His own likeness. God has, indeed, made you in His own image: you are individuals, not like anyone else, and because Jesus has died for you personally, He alone commands your supreme loyalty. He has risen and gone to heaven to prepare your place in heaven: do not betray Him for the sake of what would be, ultimately, a contemptible fear of standing out from others or a ludicrously tragic self-deception trade-marked by Lucifer himself. Only when you strive to follow Jesus with your whole heart will you find your true self, divinely commissioned before time began; only when you commit yourself, alone with Jesus, to the Father, will you become a member of the heavenly family with the hosts of saints and angels for your true companions and enduring friends.
This living of the Christian life, this chosen contentment with Jesus above all, for the Father, might indeed bring the cross into our lives as you have heard from today’s readings, but it is the Cross of Jesus, and our bearing and sharing in that Cross is really our passport to eternal life and fulfilment:
The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:16-18)